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Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

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Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” Is Unbearably Sad

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017

As Aaron Couch wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, this teaser dropped at Comic-Con; click here.

As Couch notes, “It’s game on. Fans got a first look at Steven Spielberg’s anticipated Ready Player One in Hall H on Saturday at Comic-Con [based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline]. The footage for the ’80s-themed (but future-set) action adventure debuted during Warner Bros.’ presentation, which included DC films and Blade Runner 2049.

The footage sees star Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts, teenager and gamer on a high-stakes treasure hunt in the all-encompassing video game, Oasis, designed by the nostalgic eccentric James Halliday, played by Spielberg-favorite Mark Rylance. We see the stacks of Ohio, the slum where Wade lives. Trailers are stacked one atop another, sky-high. Inside his trailer, we see Wade put on the Oasis gear, and then he’s transported into the game.

There are flashes of the different environments: a futuristic dance party, Wade hanging out with the Iron Giant (‘The Iron Giant is a real player in this story,’ Spielberg said), Wade racing around in the DeLorean from Back to the Future as he avoids wrecking balls, and fighting Freddie Kruger. We also see the forces of evil, who sit in an office and control avatars in the game, clearly trying to find the treasure before our hero . . .

[Said Spielberg of the film], “what made me want to tell the story more than anything else was the kind of world 2045 gives to people, which is so Dystopian. People are leaving the country and all of a sudden virtual reality gives you a choice, gives you another world to exist in. And you can do anything in that world — anything you can possibly imagine. . . . That interaction between real life and virtual life, by the third act of this movie, is virtually nonexistent.”

You can see for yourself how the frightening the trailer is; Watts lives in a series of stacked trailers in a spawling Hell of the future – born in 2025, but desperately wanting to live in the past. The Oasis supposedly offers him the chance to do that, but of course, it’s just an illusion. There’s no escape – he’s still stuck in a trailer wearing a VR mask.

What strikes me most about this new wave of ultra-synthetic movies is that both audiences and filmmakers seem to have given up on saving the world from ecological disaster, and are instead conditioning viewers – and by extension, society at large – to expect nothing from the future, other than providing VR as a means of escape.

VR is a prison; I wrote an article about it entitled Slaves of Vision, and that’s exactly what it is. VR is the prison of the present, and, if we let it happen, the prison of the future – a hopeless panacea in a world that needs solid answers, not another way of avoiding reality. Spielberg to the contrary, virtual reality does not gives you a choice, does not give you another world to exist in. It’s a place where no one can exist, and nothing really happens.

Again, a quick read of Charles Eric Maine’s prescient novel Escapement (written in 1956) will tell you where all of this is headed; VR as an addiction for people without hope, without prospects, without education, without a real life. There is nothing here of any value – just a fun house full of distorted mirrors, offering momentary respite from non-existence.

And this is the future we want? The future we embrace?

New Article – “Synthetic Cinema” in QRFV

Friday, July 7th, 2017

I have a new article out today on the rise of “synthetic” cinema in QRFV.

Above, Mark Ruffalo in what he all too accurately terms the “man cancelling suit” for his role as The Hulk in yet another Marvel comic book movie; this is just the sort of thing I’m talking about in this article – films that are so far removed from the real that there’s no human agency left in them.

As I write, in part, in the article, “there’s a force at work that has pushed mainstream cinema almost entirely into the fantasy franchise zone; the DC, Marvel, and now Universal Dark Universe films, comic book movies that rely almost entirely on special effects for that added ‘wow’ factor, often shot or reprocessed into 3-D, almost entirely lacking in plot, characterization, depth, or innovation – films that have no connection to the real world at all. I’ve [recently] published a book, A Brief History of Comic Book Movies, co-written with comic book historian Richard Graham on the history of the comic book movie, and for me, it was by far the most difficult project I’ve ever worked on, because as Gertrude Stein famously put it in another context, in comic book movies, ‘there’s no there there.’

There’s nothing remotely real here, or even authentic, and absolutely nothing is at stake. There are meaningless titanic battles, but the outcome is always predestined – the major characters will live until they have outlived fan base demand, and then they’ll ‘die’ – only to be resurrected in a reboot after sufficient time has passed. Most pressingly, nothing really happens in a comic book film despite the constant bombast, the endless ‘shared universe’ team-ups, and the inevitably angst ridden backstories that most superheroes and heroines are provided with today – a trend started in the early 1960s in Marvel comics, whose protagonists had a seemingly human, sympathetic edge, as opposed to the square jawed certainty of DC’s Superman and Batman.

There’s no real progression here, just repetition, for as Marvel head Stan Lee has famously stated, ‘fans don’t want change; they want the illusion of change.’ And that’s what they get – a film that starts off with things in a pattern of stasis, disrupted by an artificial crisis, which amid much hand wringing and supposed character development is brought to some sort of conclusion in the final reel of the film, but with a trapdoor always – always – left open for a possible sequel, because what Hollywood wants more than anything else in 2017 is a film that can turn into a long running, reliable franchise, as witness the long string of the ultra-comic book action films in the Fast and Furious series. This is the central issue that is facing the cinema today.”

You can read the entire article here – behind a paywall. But it’s worth it!

Maybe VR Isn’t The Future of Cinema – Just a Gimmick?

Friday, May 5th, 2017

Many Best Buy VR pop-up stores closed in February; now Facebook is shutting down its Oculus Story Studio.

As Janko Roettgers reported in Variety, “Oculus Story Studio, the award-winning studio behind virtual reality (VR) short films like Dear Angelica and Henry is being shut down, Facebook announced Thursday afternoon. The studio’s 50 staffers are encouraged to apply for new jobs within Oculus, but all ongoing projects of the studio are being cancelled.

‘We’ve been looking at the best way to allocate our resources to create an impact on the ecosystem,’ said Oculus VP of Content Jason Rubin in a blog post. ‘After careful consideration, we’ve decided to shift our focus away from internal content creation to support more external production. As part of that shift, we’ll be winding down Story Studio.’

Oculus officially unveiled Story Studio to the world in early 2015, when it also premiered Lost as the studio’s first narrative piece. In 2016, Story Studio followed up with Henry, an animated VR short about a lovable hedgehog that won an Emmy for Outstanding Original Interactive Program later that year. And earlier this year, Oculus Story Studio premiered its most ambitious project with Dear Angelica, a VR film that was animated entirely within VR itself and that featured Geena Davis voicing one of the two main characters.

All three films will continue to be available on the Oculus Store, Rubin said Thursday. For Dear Angelica, the Story Studio team also developed an entire authoring tool called Quill that allows animators to draw 3-D scenes while wearing a headset and that has been available for free on the Oculus Store. Quill could be open sourced, according to a spokesperson, but Oculus is not going to provide any active support for it anymore.

That could be bad news for animators looking to explore new forms of storytelling in VR; the Story Studio team had in recent months been looking to venture into 3-D comics, and debuted a collection of VR comics at the Tribeca Film Festival last month. At the time, it announced that these comics would be released on the Oculus Store later this year, but that seems less certain now.”

This comes on the heels of an announcement in February 2017 that roughly 200 “pop up” Oculus demo booths located in Best Buy stores in the United States were being shuttered due to lack of consumer interest. As Michael Rougeau reported in Digital Trends, “just under half of the Oculus Rift demo kiosks in Best Buy stores across the U.S. are being shut down, according to a report from Business Insider. The reason? It could be a lack of interest from shoppers.

Apparently, it wasn’t uncommon for Best Buy employees ‘to go days without giving a single demonstration,’ the website said. A memo between a third-party company and store employees reportedly confirmed that the move is due to poor ‘store performance.’ An Oculus spokesperson later confirmed with the website that the Best Buy Rift pop-ups are closing, but said the shift is due to ‘seasonal changes’ and that Oculus is ‘prioritizing demos … in larger markets.’

The move will reportedly affect 200 of the 500 Best Buy locations in the U.S. that currently have Oculus Rift demo stations. ‘We still believe the best way to learn about VR is through a live demo,’ the spokesperson, Andrea Schubert, said. ‘We’re going to find opportunities to do regular events and pop-ups in retail locations and local communities throughout the year.’ She mentioned that stores in Canada will still have the demo kiosks as well.

Business Insider’s report cited multiple unnamed sources who said that the demo stations were often too buggy to use and demos were infrequent even during the holidays. Another of the site’s sources said that Facebook, which owns Oculus, has considered opening dedicated storefronts to sell the headset, but that those talks are still in the early stage.” Summing up the move, Rougeau noted that “the removal of Oculus Rift kiosks from Best Buy stores may be a signal of the product’s declining status.”

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the coming months.

The VR “Dream Park”

Monday, July 4th, 2016

Ready or not, here comes the future of mass entertainment.

As Adi Robertson and Ben Popper write in The Verge, “my partner and I step through a portal and into a bright, vaguely Mayan temple. I pick up a torch to light the way, and we set off on our adventure: over the course of less than ten minutes, we find a hidden passage, escape from a huge serpent in an underground lake, climb hundreds of feet to a beautiful vista, and, after getting through a cramped hall full of spiders, fulfill a mystical prophecy about a fractured star.

Then we take off our headsets, and it all disappears. I’m standing on stage playing a game called The Curse of the Serpent’s Eye in The Void, an experience created by the Utah-based company of the same name that is one part virtual reality, one part video game, one part interactive theater, and one part haunted house. Its creators call it ‘hyper-reality’: a virtual experience overlaid onto physical space, creating impossible places that visitors can touch as well as see.

Instead of a torch, I’m carrying a wooden dowel studded with small, shiny balls. Instead of the hissing snake, I see what look like powerful fans. And instead of the straight golden walls, there’s a round and nearly featureless gray labyrinth, turning us in circles forever.

On July 1st, after months of running limited ‘beta testing,’ The Void is opening its first public attraction: a Ghostbusters-themed experience in New York City’s Times Square, located inside the Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. For $50, visitors can strap on a VR headset and a backpack computer fashioned into a Ghostbusters proton pack, pick up a matching gun-shaped plastic prop, and act out a cinematic fantasy in real life.

After opening a door into a small New York City apartment, they’re accosted by tiny pink poltergeists, then make their way into an elevator and out a 40th-story window. A flock of living stone gargoyles and one angry Victorian spirit later, everything seems fine… until a familiar marshmallow-shaped face appears in the window.

Ghostbusters: Dimension is short and linear, although there are supposedly hidden Easter eggs for visitors to find—it’s a walk-through three-person experience, not a vast virtual world. But as technological achievements go, it’s a stunningly intricate one.

Players can see full-body avatars of their companions thanks to tracking markers on the headset and gun, and they walk freely through a tremendous amount of space by VR standards. Haptic feedback simulates the feeling of getting hit by a thrown object or friendly proton pack fire, and mist accompanies the whooshing of a ghost.

We tried it, and it may blow your mind if you ever get a chance to try it too. Over the last four years, virtual reality has emerged as one of tech’s most exciting new sectors: Facebook, Google, Samsung, and Sony are all in the process of producing and marketing virtual reality hardware.

Most of those devices are are being sold directly to consumers; the experiences they offer—games, short films, and the like—are meant to be played at home, sitting in a chair or else tethered to a nearby PC and power supply.

But there’s an entirely separate category of virtual reality that won’t be possible at home. You’ll be able to walk freely, without tripping over wires. You’ll actually feel the heat of a fire on your face, and the weightlessness in your stomach during a fall off a skyscraper. These are the virtual reality experiences currently being built into arcades, attractions, and theme parks.

In February of this year, China’s Shanda Group announced it would invest $350 million in virtual reality and build a VR theme park built in collaboration with The Void. IMAX, the widescreen theater chain, is working with the Swedish game studio Starbreeze to bring ‘premium location-based virtual reality … to multiplexes, malls and other commercial destinations.’ And established amusement parks are layering virtual reality onto their existing rides—Six Flags is currently upgrading nine roller coasters into VR experiences this summer.

In one way, there’s something contradictory about driving all the way to a theme park to get into a virtual world. In another, ‘virtual reality’ seems like an arbitrary term to throw around, when theme parks already offer simulator rides and 4D theaters—does adding a headset fundamentally change the experience?

But if these attractions catch on, they could give people a new way to live out the fantasies that Disney, Warner Brothers, and other companies have used to build multi-billion dollar empires. And to companies like The Void, VR isn’t just a new technology. It’s the key to building another world.”

This is what’s happening, and that’s that – there’s really no arguing with it; not unlike the “Dream Palaces” in Charles Eric Maine’s novel Escapement, which I keep coming back to again and again. Soon these “dream parks” will pop up everywhere, and encourage people, even more, to live almost completely in a fantasy world. Comic book movies long ago took over the multiplex, and show no sign of easing their iron grip on the box-office; it seems that perpetual adolescence is now in control.

One wonders, absolutely idly, what someone like Ozu, Dreyer, Bresson or a more thoughtful director recent vintage might do with such technology, but it seems that the two mediums are incompatible. This is the future of theatrical exhibition; traditional “movies,” in 2-D, 3-D or Imax, are about to undergo a revolution.

This is just the opening salvo in what will be a complete transformation of the filmgoing experience; narrative films in which the viewer is a key participant. In ten years, contemporary cinemas will be as outmoded as silent films were in the late 1920s; you watch, this is coming on fast.

The VR future of “dream parks” is here and now.

New Article – Slaves of Vision: The Oculus Rift

Thursday, April 7th, 2016

I have just published a new article on the advent of the VR device, the Oculus Rift.

As I note in the article, the “Oculus Rift [VR headset] is a completely immersive experience, blocking out anything but the fantasy world that it provides for the viewer. There’s no one else in this Oculus world except for the game player, and the digital characters conjured up by the game makers – the rest of the real world has been effectively shut out. Thus, it doesn’t matter where you are in a genuine physical sense with Oculus Rift – you’re no longer part of actual existence, having traded it in for a fantasy world.

While it’s a predictable step in the evolution of digital technology – indeed, even in the evolution of cinema, was has sought to be an immersive and overwhelming medium since its first inception – I view a world in which a significant portion of the population are living in an alternative universe rather than contributing to the real one with some alarm.

It may be that life in 21st century, with its endless procession of terrorism, wars, famine, and ecological collapse is too much for the human mind to handle, and escape is the only option. The damage that we have done to the planet since 1950 is more than all the previous centuries of human existence combined, and in such an uncertain world, the urge to ‘check out’ is certainly understandable.

But, of course, it’s one more step in the direction of total human compartmentalization, something that started, arguably, with radio – so people didn’t have to go out to see performances of plays, operas, or symphonies or jazz bands – but reached its early apotheosis with the invention of television, which significantly cut down on human interaction on a local scale, as people could sit at home at and watch images that moved in their living room rather than trekking out to the local theater.

The web has only intensified this, as we spend more and more hours transfixed in front of our computer screens, whether through necessity as part of employment, or paradoxically, seeking escape from the everyday world. For the 21st century, it’s total immersion – and thus total escape from the real world – that really draws the spectator. Yes, VR is absolutely going to be addictive, and the proof is already right in front of us. What will happen when a large portion of society, increasing exponentially daily, is ‘tuned out’ from reality? We’ll have to wait and see – but I don’t think we’ll have to wait that long.”

Charles Eric Maine’s novel Escapement is my jumping off point here – required reading for the VR era.

Video Games: The Romantic Apocalypse

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

There’s a new video game out that deals with the end of the world – in a very different fashion.

As Keith Stuart notes in The Guardian, “It’s been three years since The Chinese Room, a tiny studio currently working out of a modest office building in Brighton, started work on . Back then, co-founder Dan Pinchbeck had the idea of creating a game about the end of the world, but from a very different perspective than titles like Fallout and Last of Us, with their grand visions of ruined American cities. Influenced by science fiction writers John Wyndham and John Christopher, he and his team became interested in the idea of what Brian Aldiss once called the ‘cosy catastrophe’ – a resolutely British idea of the apocalypse, containing very little violence or explosive trauma, experienced by small communities rather than mass populations.

‘We talked about it, and we said, well, what is the important thing about the end of the world?’ says Pinchbeck. ‘It’s not about cities being consumed in fire. Take the movie 2012 – the whole of California vanishes and you don’t feel a thing, it’s just ridiculous. The apocalypse is about people, and the connections between them. What’s really touching is parents waiting for their kids to come home – and what they’re worried about is that the buses aren’t running, not that the world is ending. It’s the little moments that get you.’

The game presents a fictitious Shropshire village named Yaughton which is rendered in quite staggering physical detail, using Crytek’s Cryengine technology. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, then, takes place in a small valley in Shropshire in the summer of 1984. Viewed from the first-person perspective, the player is simply dropped at the outskirts of the village, with no instructions and no idea about what’s happened. From here, you are free to explore the environment, investigating empty houses, shops and barns, looking for clues. There are notes to read, radio recordings to listen to and computer screens to study. The first thing you interact with is a Commodore 64, its flickering monitor showing weird footage and repeating some sort of code, like a numbers station.

It is, in some ways, a natural evolution of the sub-genre that Chinese Room helped found with its debut game Dear Esther, a hugely atmospheric mystery set on a remote Hebridean island. The style came to prominence in 2013 with the title Gone Home, about a woman returning to her family home and finding it deserted. Often termed ‘notgames’ or ‘walking simulators’, these narrative adventures eschew familiar ludic elements like fighting and level progression, instead providing a single location and a set of environmental clues with which to uncover the story.

The genre has proved weirdly controversial, prompting angry dismissals from some gamers, who even question whether titles like Gone Home and Dear Esther are games at all. The Chinese Room team aren’t worried. ‘There’s a long tradition in games, of sections where not much happens. I think the best part of the whole Dead Space trilogy is the return to the Ishimura where you spend 45 minutes just thinking: “OK, when’s it going to happen?” That’s the scariest part.'”

You can read much more on the end of the world – and the end of people – in Gwendolyn Audrey Foster‘s recent book Hoarders, Doomsday Preppers and The Culture of the Apocalypse; a fascinating look at the whole concept of de-peopled spaces, and how it’s so hard for us to imagine a world without us – something that will someday surely happen. Foster’s book, and this game, both share a common concept; the visualization of a world in which human agency no longer exists.

Sounds like a refreshing change from the usual video mayhem; read the whole article here.

wheelerwinstondixon.com

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

I’ve moved my website to wheelerwinstondixon.com – follow me there!

Take a look at the image above, and you’ll see how it works.

The new website is much cleaner, has more information, and works more smoothly.

At the top left, there’s an “about” tab, where you can also download my complete cv as a pdf; next to that there are two tabs covering the 32 books that I’ve written, with the covers on display as clickable links that go directly to information on each title; next to that is a tab that goes to some 30 online articles of mine that are available out of the nearly 100 that I have written over the years; then comes a link to the Frame by Frame videos that I’ve made, with a clickable link to a carousel playlist that starts automatically and takes you through more than 70 titles; then a tab for this blog; then a tab for my film work — I have a show coming up in New York this Spring, 2014 — and finally a contact page, where you can e-mail me if you wish to.

This is where you will find me from now on; the old website is dead, so let’s move on into the future.

The Rules of the Game

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

No, it’s not about Jean Renoir‘s 1939 classic, The Rules of the Game, though the society in collapse that the film depicts resonates eerily in our contemporary era.

It’s about a report by Tricia Duryee in the Wall Street Journal, announcing Google+’s new video games policy; instead of taking a 30% cut of the action as Facebook and Apple do, Google+ will only take 5%, and leave 95% for the game manufacturers, although this is an introductory offer, and once they get market share, who knows what will happen?

As Duryee reports, “Google+ Games Product Manager Punit Soni explained that initially Google will share 95 percent of the revenue from virtual goods sold with the developers and keep only five percent for itself. That confirms what I originally reported hearing from sources last month.Soni said it could change in the future, but pricing today will be based on the company’s new in-app payments platform, which charges five percent for microtransactions on the Web (unlike the 30 percent Google charges on Android).”

Let the games begin!

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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